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Musical Theatre Review Print



Bernstein's White House Musical, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and What it May Mean Today

(Or, as Someone Said, This Is Set in OUR White House, Folks)

April 26, 2020 - Raleigh, NC:


Coping with crisisFirst of three parts.

Lennie he was, to his friends and his enemies too. To use that over-used term, Bernstein was multi-talented – a conductor, a pianist, a composer, and more. Did he over-extend? Perhaps nowhere more than in his great bicentennial flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which inspired one wag to opine that never in the grand history of musical theater had so many consipired so mightily to create such a staggering flop. We are honored to present the following account of the work by Bernstein specialist and scholar William Henry Curry.

PART 1: Bernstein/Lerner: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

The composition of 1600 took place between 1972-76.During this time, both Leonard Bernstein and Alan Jay Lerner were at the apex of their careers. But in their private lives, they were both sitting on volcanos that would soon erupt.

Leonard Bernstein in the early 1970s: Many felt at this time that he was the greatest all-round musician this country had produced. He had written several theatrical masterpieces, including On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), Candide (1956), West Side Story (1957), and Mass (1971). He was a world-class pianist, the most important and influential of all American conductors, and a poet and an author. He had a great conducting career in Europe. He was a Grammy winner and had been nominated for an Academy Award for his music for the movie On the Waterfront. He lectured at Harvard. He had a loving wife and three adoring children. However, his private life in the early 1970s was in a state of transformation. LB had always been predominantly homosexual, but the marriage was sincere; Felicia was not a "beard," and she knew he was gay before she married him. He had had hundreds of affairs with men through the years. (I've seen many of the love letters at the Library of Congress that are not published in any book.) But, these men were all meaningless one-night stands…, a series of "cast-offs."

Then, in 1970 he met Tom Cothran…, and everything was different this time. Tom was in his early 20s, Bernstein was in his mid-50s. As his daughter Jamie told me in a conversation several years ago, "Tommy was smart, twinkly and adorable. We all liked him. But Daddy REALLY loved Tommy." And as long as there was some "ambiguity" in their relationship – and discretion – people looked the other way and life went on. But after the failure of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue something changed in Bernstein. By then in his mid-50s, he felt it was time to be "himself." Subsequently, his affair with Cothran continued and deepened and was now more out in the open.

According to one account, Felicia caught the two together in bed at their home. In the summer of 1976, his wife gave him an ultimatum: give up Tom or move out. He chose the latter option and moved to California with Tom. (I'm writing an essay about this remarkable and "hidden" part of Bernstein's life, and I have found that the Bernstein estate wants it to remain at least partially obscured. There are two movies in the works now about Bernstein, but they conveniently end before 1970, before the "Cothran" years." For my OLLI-at-Duke adult education courses in the spring of 2019 I gave six 90-minute lectures titled "Bernstein the Man and his Music.")

Alan Jay Lerner in the early 1970s: By this time Lerner had won three Oscars and three Tony Awards, With composer Frederick Loewe, he had written the book and the lyrics for several Broadway hits including Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, Camelot, and the movie Gigi. However, like Bernstein, his private life was always in a state of turmoil. For 20 years, Lerner was addicted to amphetamines and he married eight times. In 1964, he was involved in one of the ugliest divorces in modern history. His wife hired the infamous Roy Cohn to represent her. (Yes... Cohn himself, of Joseph McCarthy fame.) One of the unseemly things Cohn did during this case was to try to bribe Harvey Mann, who was a friend of both Lerner and his wife, to say in court, for $100,000, that he had had a homosexual affair with Alan Jay Lerner. (Completely untrue.) This divorce case dragged on through the '70s and the composition of 1600. Finally, Cohn sued Mrs. Lerner and tried to bribe Mann – again! – to testify against her. (And perhaps it is worthy of mention that before there was Michael Cohen, Roy Cohn was our current President's "fixer." In 1986 the two were very close and would talk five times a day on the phone. And with Cohn, who was a closeted gay, they partied together at Studio 54 and other night clubs. In 2005, our current President said of Cohn:" Roy was brutal, but he was a very loyal guy. He brutalized FOR you." But…, I digress.)

This then is the background of talent and turmoil that these two geniuses lived in during the creation of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Perhaps the whole disaster could have been averted if someone had bothered to read the arrogant lyrics of their only previous collaboration, a song they wrote in 1957 for their alma mater, Harvard:

We are the lonely men of Harvard.
Set apart from all the rest.
Isolated men of Harvard
All because we are the best!
And that's the curse we share
The Cross we've got to bear
For our indubitable, irrefutable, indomitable, incalculable superiority!

Arthur Laurents was the first choice to direct this musical. He is famous for writing the screenplays for Hitchcock's Rope and The Way We Were. He also wrote the books for West Side Story and Gypsy and directed the Broadway premiere of Le cage aux folles.

In his memoirs, titled Original Story, Laurents says this about 1600:

"Lenny came to me and asked me to direct a musical he was writing with Alan Jay Lerner. The two were alike and unalike; Alan had innumerable wives, Lenny had innumerable boyfriends. Lenny was ten-gallon hats, tumblers of Scotch (always Ballantines), and joyful exuberance. Alan was suits and ties and daily shots of amphetamines from Dr. Max Jacobson."

(Jacobson was famously known as "Miracle Max" and "Dr. Feelgood." His famous "miracle tissue regenerator" included the following ingredients: amphetamines, animal hormones, bone marrow, enzymes, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, and multivitamins. His clients included Lauren Bacall, Bernstein, Humphrey Bogart, Maria Callas, Truman Capote, Van Cliburn, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Mickey Mantle, Liza Minelli, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Paul Robeson, Nelson Rockefeller, David O. Selznick, Elizabeth Taylor, Tennessee Williams, and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, whom he saw at least 34 times in the White House. Jacobson eventually began abusing his own product and by the late 1960s he was truly "wired," working 24-hour days, and seeing sometimes as many as 30 clients a day. When one of his patients died in 1969, an investigation led to Jacobson's medical license being revoked.)

Laurents continues: "Lerner wore white cotton gloves to stop himself from biting his nails…, which he chewed through anyway." (These bloody gloves were often discarded wherever he happened to be. It was considered to be an honor if he happened to leave a pair of his blood-stained gloves at your home.) "Both Lerner and Bernstein were clever and funny, and both were seriously concerned about Nixon's mark of Cain on a country they loved passionately." (This was during Nixon's second term.)

In her recently published Famous Father Girl, A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, Jamie Bernstein gives the best explanation I have ever read about what Bernstein and Lerner were trying to do in this musical: "1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was a story of the White House, with its presidents and wives upstairs and successive generations of a black servant family downstairs. (Yes, this was after the success of the PBS serial Upstairs, Downstairs.) Not only was the White House the metaphor for the nation's ongoing struggle to preserve its democracy, and not only was the show about our nations original sin of slavery and how racial injustice remained at the core of our national discourse, but, in addition, all this was supposed to be played out through the relationships of the actors themselves, who were in a 'rehearsal' of the show, you see…, because our country is in constant 'rehearsal' for attaining true democracy…, and the actors would occasionally step out of character and argue among themselves about the meaning of the work they were rehearsing and their fraught relationships with one another."

 Arthur Laurents accurately described it as being "an unstructured, ambitious mess."

After Laurents turned it down, the creative team approached Frank Corsaro to direct. Corsaro had directed several major New York City Opera productions including operas with singers Plácido Domingo and Beverly Sills, the premiere of Robert Ward's Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Crucible, and an important revival of Korngold's Die tote Stadt. He was also the director of the Houston Grand Opera's modern premiere of Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha. His "straight" play credits included the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams' Night of the Iguana (a tense production during which Bette Davis banned Corsaro from the last rehearsals.)

From an interview with Frank Corsaro, circa 1984: "I first heard the score of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when we had a read-through at which Bernstein was present and some singers performed the music. I thought it was Bernstein's most original, interesting score since West Side Story. It was very long, very vital and made an enormous impression on me. Then I took home the book to read it. I was absolutely perplexed, as it seemed impossible. I couldn't believe what was there. It had no foot in any reasonable foundation. I didn't like the premise it was based on the assumption that everyone sees the White House as a symbol of America. The book was not quite finished. I had no doubt there was something very wrong with it. Yet, with these collaborators, how could one say no? I thought I would see what could be done for it. Bernstein was critical of a few things in the book but basically supported it. When I came into the show, Bernstein was generally behind what was there. Against my better judgement I agreed to direct the show. I should have known better, but everyone was pushing me into it. After that it was a continual battle to make some sense of an impossible situation. I fought with Lerner for changes. But he and Bernstein had already been working on it for years and every time I made a suggestion, they said they had tried THAT two years ago. They had bullied each other into a very pretentious, chicly liberal approach to American history. Then I learned that the producers, Roger Stevens and Robert Whitehead also shared my reservations. They refused to raise any more money after a certain point unless they had a book that made sense. I agreed with them that we would not proceed with any actual production until the book had been improved. The producers and I were in complete cahoots at this time. We had a weekly seminar to get Lerner to do revisions which we knew were necessary. But he kept dancing around them. The juggling routine went on for weeks. It was only the presence of these two big names – Bernstein and Lerner – that kept the project afloat."

The first producer, Arnold Saint-Subber, had pulled out earlier. He said later, "I loathed it. I tried desperately to get everyone to abandon it." Before he left, Saint-Subber said he faced up to Lerner and shouted at him, "It stinks, it stinks, it stinks!"

People around the production team now smelled disaster and were hoping that the production would be unable to raise the large amount of money needed to put on the show. And it looked like that might happen. However, Lerner, the King of charm, then convinced his friends at Coca-Cola for that company to be the sole backer of the show… for 2 million dollars. The people at Coca-Cola must have thought at the time:" How can this go wrong? THE Leonard Bernstein? THE Alan Jay Lerner? Writing a musical celebration for the Bicentennial? This is a win-win. We'll do something appropriate for America's 200th birthday and we'll make a ton of money in the bargain!"

Corsaro says: "This was a cruel stroke of fate. The Coca-Cola people invested in the show without seeing or reading ANY of it. My jaw dropped. We were caught in the web. I had a long meeting with one of the producers asking him to stop the venture. But he chickened out. The money made the gamble possible. And then, after the deal had been made, some of the representatives from Coca-Cola actually SAW the show. Afterwards, I saw them sitting in the bar across the street, astounded. They could not believe what was going on. Some attempt was made to pull out, but by that time, it was too late."

"Bernstein would make the necessary changes, but the music was never our problem. One minute Lerner and I would be on the same wavelength and the next minute I would be talking to a stranger. The point of the work was to give the United States a gift at its Bicentennial, and it turned out to be no real gift at all. Instead it was a portrait which severely criticized the early residents of the White House."

Included in the cast were some fine performers, including Ken Howard, who played all the Presidents. Previously, he had played the role of President Thomas Jefferson in the musical 1776 and had won a Tony Award for his performance in Child's Play. Later, he would become better known as the basketball coach in the TV show The White Shadow. (He passed away in 2016.) Playing all the first ladies was Patricia Routledge. She had won a Tony Award in 1968. She would later be well-known for her performance as Hyacinth Bucket in the BBC-TV sitcom Keeping Up Appearances. Bruce Hubbard played several of the African-American male roles. He would later achieve recognition for singing the classic song "Old Man River" in the first complete recording of Showboat with the original orchestrations. (He died of pneumonia in 1991.)

For PART 2: Previews in Philly - click here.

For PART 3: Broadway… and Beyond…. - click here.